Notes and Editorial Reviews
Levingston holds us spellbound with poetic, even sublime playing in a recital which takes us from 1828 to 2004.
This is Bruce Levingston’s third recital for Sono Luminus, and all have shown a consistent, unique artistic profile. He creates probing, deeply thoughtful interpretations of everything he encounters, and assembles recital programs which intelligently combine old favorites with new scores on which the ink is barely dry. I reviewed his second recital for MusicWeb and was generally welcoming, but this new disc,
Still Sound, is better still: it brings together Pärt, Satie, Schubert, Chopin, Bolcom, and Augusta Gross in a program of great poetry and timelessness. Still Sound is indeed an
apt title. Apt, too, is the
New York Times quotation in Levingston’s biography: “hauntingly serene”.
We begin with two short works by Arvo Pärt,
Für Alina and the
Arinuschka variations, which date from the very beginning of his mature style. In their spiritual simplicity and beauty they set the tone for the full hour, and reveal Levingston’s hallmark traits: a clean, poetic sound, a varied palette of pianistic colors, and an unwillingness to rush - or even take the music at tempo in many cases. There follows a Satie
Gymnopédie of such exquisite, fragile beauty that one can hardly wait to hear the Satie later in the program, at least until one falls in love with the aria-like simplicity of psychologist and composer Augusta Gross’s two miniatures,
Venturing Forth Anew.
The Gross pieces are unlikely but apt preludes to a Schubert impromptu, D899 No 4, which in this context does seem unusually active and dense. The context and Levingston’s playing have the effect of revealing the simplicity of the Schubert, too, and the way in which the impromptu, like its disc-mates, creates great emotional effect with the tiniest, most elegant of ideas. Unfortunately, the Schubert brings to mind the Achilles heel of this series: some of the recordings were made in a different concert hall which had a more clangy, colder acoustic. The Pärt is affected but only mildly so; this Schubert is really distressing, especially when the engineering makes a vulgar hash of the highest notes. ‘Vulgar’ is the last word anyone should ever use to describe Bruce Levingston’s pianism, so this is a pity.
The acoustic issue is immediately solved with the next track, when we return to the warmer, more flattering environs of the main hall - and to the very first Chopin nocturne, here gorgeously stretched out to what must be a record 7:29. Levingston’s goal is to show again how this most romantic of music acts as a stylistic precursor to Pärt and Satie, and again he succeeds. Sure, it’s not period-authentic, or really at all typical (Arrau: 5:50) but goodness is it exquisite.
It’s a lead-in to
New York Lights by William Bolcom, a paraphrase for piano of an aria from Bolcom’s opera
A View from the Bridge. The booklets contain the touching backstory for the piece, with a quote from the original aria; the piano version was written at the suggestion of, and premiered by, none other than Levingston himself. Its quiet, humble beginning gives no suggestion of the fully voiced song which it will become. Afterwards, we are treated to another Satie bit (the second Gnossienne), played with a touch so soft it defies belief.
The album concludes with three more short works by Augusta Gross, of which
Reflections on Air is my favorite - imagine a homage to Bach written by Debussy, though the piece is more creatively, originally shaped than any such comparison can suggest - and the third Gymnopédie of Satie, an encore which leaves me wishing for still more.
Still Sound works because this is indeed a collection of works which seem to slow or stop time; the hour passes as if it was both a mere instant and a lifetime. Part of that quality is due to the composers’ simplicity and often spirituality; part is due to the savvy programming; and part is due to Levingston’s extraordinary gifts as a colorist and as a performer who can hold attention rapt with the softest of playing. If I was less enthusiastic about his earlier recitals, I am a convert now. The harsher sound quality in four of these tracks is the only blemish on what may well be one of my recordings of the year. If you like this, seek out one of my previous ‘of the year’ winners, Edward Rosser’s Visions of Beyond - which also has a sublime, unusual Schubert reading. If Bruce Levingston is ever willing to do something as prosaic as a one-composer recital, someone needs to call him about a Satie album or two immediately.
-- Brian Reinhart , MusicWeb International
Works on This Recording
New York Lights by William Bolcom
Bruce Levingston (Piano)
Period: 21st Century
Für Alina by Arvo Pärt
Bruce Levingston (Piano)
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1976; Estonia
Changes by Augusta Gross
Bruce Levingston (Piano)
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